Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Reading Sula

I wasn’t really expecting everybody to die. To be fair, at the very end of “Sula,” Toni Morrison’s second novel, published back in 1973, there are three characters still alive. One is a fool, one is an old woman madder than she ever was before, and the third has wasted half her life. The deaths of everybody else comprise the narrative.

Well, alright, their lives are pretty interesting, too. If they hadn’t lived, they couldn’t have all wound up dead in such unexpected manners. (Now that I think of it, one or two of them just leave town, which makes them as good as dead.) “Sula” is a tightly constructed novel, best read in a single setting. (It’s only 174 pages of fairly large size type, so it’s entirely possible to do so, even if I wound up dividing it into three chunks over a few days, when I had some spare time on my hands.) There are so many big things happening that you might forget some of the smaller ones which come back to prominence many pages (and years) later.

I once heard Toni Morrison read from what was then her unfinished novel “Beloved,” and she was enthralling. Her voice is barely above a whisper, but it commands attention. Ever since then, when I’ve read Morrison – and I confess that for some strange reason, I haven’t done it nearly enough – I hear her voice in my head, especially on her most matter-of-fact descriptive passages.

“Sula” tells the tale of the black community which inhabited the ironically named Bottom (because it was at the top of a hill) of Medallion, Ohio, a small river town. The story runs from 1919 to 1965, and focuses most of its attention on three generations of women. There’s Eva Peace, the one-legged matriarch who loved her children more than their lives were worth. Her daughter, Hannah, is really more of a symbol than a character. Sula, of course, is the center of the book. She is Hannah’s daughter, and she is treated as a devil by everyone in the town. That she actually commits and omits sins now and again is important, but not the reason she is feared.

Actually, there is another woman very important to the story. Sula’s best friend Nel is the only one who connects with her. They participate in horrors and pleasures together, and can take up their friendship after a long passage of time apart. The book turns on their relationship, though not always in the way you expect.

Morrison constantly caught me off guard, with events coming out of nowhere. Death is a simple fact of existence in Medallion, even when it is highly symbolic. You can be reading along enjoying intense conversations followed by amusing anecdotes , and the next thing you know somebody’s burning to death and somebody else is jumping out of a window. In Morrison’s world, there is life, the nuts and bolts of day to day existence (which very much includes sex) and there are Events, things which happen and which cannot be taken back (which sometimes include sex).

Ah, yes, sex is all over “Sula.” Both Hannah and Sula refuse to live without it, even though only the former ever has a husband, and him not for long. Mother and daughter both take turns with the married men of the town (not at the same time; Sula is too young when her mother parts from the world). It is Sula’s attitude towards sex which creates the center of the novel, the thing which leaves her totally alone. And, since she views sex as an entrance to pure loneliness, this Event makes perfect sense.

Much later, Sula finds a man she can love, or at least be comfortable with, physically and psychically. So, naturally enough, the very act of wanting such a thing, which she had never even glimpsed before, leads to it all going wrong; the juxtaposition of this scene with Sula lying on her death bed reinforces the sense that wanting something often leads to the opposite.

I haven’t even mentioned Shadrack, the man who went to fight in World War I and lived the rest of his life with virtually no human contact. He is the fool of the novel, the man who seems (emphasis on seems) to know more than he does, who makes things happen, but who ultimately never changes after his experience overseas. The War to End Wars was the Event which ended his humanity. But, he is one of the three characters to survive to the end of the novel, which has to count for something.

Morrison would later write richer novels, would get even better at integrating real life with symbolic passages, would show more often than she tells us what is happening. But, “Sula” is not exactly a minor work. It’s the story of a certain kind of African-American experience, of the ways in which survival depended on living without worrying what could happen next, lest you wind up worrying without living. Reading it is like getting an extrapolation of the blues, the sense of meeting problems head on, of describing them to make them survivable. That doesn’t mean these characters are nonchalant – their pain and suffering is palpable. But, there is strength in their experience, and a strange, sad beauty in the telling.


Post a Comment

<< Home